Best Defense

When I think about morale at the CIA, I think about 2 things: Mission and family

Imagine having the job of your dreams. You look forward to work each morning and are filled with a tremendous sense of purpose. Then imagine that you get a new CEO who starts publicly trashing your organization to the entire world.

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By Jacqueline Lopour
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Imagine having the job of your dreams. You look forward to work each morning and are filled with a tremendous sense of purpose.

Then imagine that you get a new CEO who starts publicly trashing your organization to the entire world. He tells the world that he sees no value in your work, belittles your intelligence, and questions your integrity. Every day you wake to new insults hurled on Twitter or television.

This is the situation that some CIA analysts, of whom I was one for 10 years, now face. While their jobs might not sound as sexy as those on the operational side, CIA analysts are no less dedicated to the mission and no less self-sacrificing. When duty calls  — and it does so often — they miss family dinners, birthdays, a child’s play, or ballet recital, and most frequently, sleep. Some even lose marriages, friendships, and their own health. They serve in war zones and sometimes see friends and colleagues injured or killed.

To be fair, CIA analysts have always faced intense public criticism. Intelligence successes are classified; often you cannot talk about them to friends or family because they do not have security clearances. I still cannot tell my loved ones about my greatest professional achievements. Intelligence failures, of course, are splashed across every newspaper. Analysts must sit by and watch as the public accuses them of lies, conspiracies, or far worse. They cannot even defend themselves, because doing so might reveal classified information and violate the most sacred tenets of the organization.

However, even in those previous difficult times, employees had the comfort of knowing their bosses and customers valued their work and commitment to national security. We were constantly reminded that our work was critical — that it helped protect national security and was valued by arguably the most powerful person in the world: The U.S. president. Former presidents provided feedback on analytic pieces, knowing that it would inspire and galvanize the trenches to keep up the good work. Today, I’m certain CIA senior management is taking every step possible to reassure its workforce. But when your ultimate boss goes on Twitter and compares you to Nazi Germany, I can only wonder if these assurances seem hollow and unfulfilling.

So what do I tell friends who are thinking of joining (or those who are considering leaving)? I tell them that the CIA is probably the greatest place you will ever work. The situation might be difficult right now, but you can draw support from the people you work with. The sense of community is breathtaking. On my former team, we might not have always liked each other, but we always respected, supported, and cared for each other. “Mission first” is practically a sacred motto, so we put pettiness aside to get the job done. Even in the midst of crises, I saw teams rally together to cover the workload, so that a colleague could make it to an important personal event. That is far more than mere teamwork — that is family.

It was not always perfect. Any time you put so many talented people in the same room, friction is bound to occur. However, one friend put it quite brilliantly, borrowing a theme from an old Bedouin proverb: “We are a tribe. We might fight and scheme against each other every day, but if someone attacks us as a group? The spears go out and we have each other’s backs.” It was pretty spectacular to seen that in action. Leaving this family was probably the hardest decision I have ever made, and I often miss it fiercely.

The CIA is filled with consummate professionals. I have absolute faith that, no matter the political climate, they will always do their jobs admirably and with integrity. For that, I thank them for all they do to protect U.S. national security and want them to know it was an honor to have worked alongside them and called them colleagues, friends, and family.

Jacqueline Lopour spent 10 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in South Asia and the Middle East.  She currently works at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a non-partisan think tank where she focuses on international security challenges. She holds the CIA chair in the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted.

Image credit: CIA

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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